Before moving to Alexandria about a year ago, Kate Ranta lived in Parkland, Fla.
Six years ago, her now-ex-husband shot both her and her father twice in front of her son, who was 4-years-old at the time.
Though Ranta now lives here, her parents remain in Parkland, along with her brother and his family. Her nephews’ elementary school went into lockdown on Feb. 14 as authorities searched for a gunman who had attacked a high school only a mile away from them.
“I’m a survivor of domestic and gun violence. It happened in Parkland,” Ranta said. “When…I saw the community I lived in, the school getting attacked, I don’t even know if I have the words to describe it. It’s horrifying.”
Ranta is not alone in her horror.
More than 300 people crowded the sidewalk on both sides of Waples Mill Road outside the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) Fairfax headquarters on Feb. 16 to stand vigil for the 17 people killed in the Valentine’s Day school shooting in Parkland.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and other anti-gun violence groups have been organizing protests in this exact spot on the 14th day of every month for more than five years, ever since 26 people were killed at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012.
This vigil, however, was different not just because of the change in date, but also because it was the first protest that took place at night.
Attendees helped each other light candles even as biting winds kept threatening to extinguish the wavering flames, all in the shadow of the NRA headquarters with its walls of opaque glass. An American flag flew at half-mast from the building’s roof.
Though tears and sobs were found easily enough during the hour-long vigil, speakers made it clear that they were not interested in just lamenting those killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School only two days earlier.
They wanted change. They wanted action.
“We are here to mourn the victims,” Brady Campaign Northern Virginia chapter leader Martina Leinz said. “We mourn with their families and with the citizens of Parkland, but we are also here to honor them with action, because thoughts and prayers will not get the job done.”
Specifically, the vigil’s attendees urged state and federal legislators to implement stricter gun laws that they argue would prevent mass shootings like the ones in Parkland and Newtown from occurring in the future, joining similar calls from activists, students, and communities around the country.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) called on his fellow members of Congress and the Virginia General Assembly to pass legislation that bans adaptable semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15-style rifle used in Parkland, requires universal background checks for gun purchases, and closes a gap in federal law that allows some private dealers to sell weapons without a license.
Leinz and other protestors questioned why Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year-old former Stoneman Douglas student who has been charged with the shooting, could buy an AR-15 when he was too young to even drink alcohol legally.
“Meaningful change starts with laws that protect the children,” City of Fairfax resident Barbara Harris said. “There are simple laws that could be enacted that would do so much to prevent guns from getting into the hands of people that shouldn’t have them.”
In Virginia, support for gun control has largely been split along partisan lines with Democrats mostly backing legislation and Republicans standing in opposition.
In the 2018 General Assembly session alone, Virginia House Democrats introduced some two dozen gun safety-related bills ranging from a ban on bump stocks and the institution of universal background checks to a requirement that daycare centers lock up any guns that they have and the removal of sales tax on biometric or combination gun safes.
All of these bills have already been killed, most of them in committee, even as a Quinnipiac poll from last summer showed that 51 percent of Virginians support stricter gun laws and 91 percent support requiring background checks for all gun buyers, according to The Washington Post.
For many of the people at the candlelight vigil, though, their investment in addressing the issue of gun violence goes beyond politics.
Annandale resident Peter Read, for instance, lost his daughter, Mary, in the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting that killed 32 people and has been active in the gun violence prevention movement ever since.
While past experience has made him wary of believing that any single event will be a tipping point leading to change, Read says he feels inspired by student survivors of the Parkland shooting who have been vocal in calling for gun control legislation, organizing trips to the Florida Legislature to meet lawmakers, school walkouts, and a march in Washington, D.C.
“I hope that their representatives and their so-called leaders are listening,” Read said. “If our generation doesn’t make these changes, that generation is going to, so they need to be listened to. Their voices need to be heard.”
Stoneman Douglas alumni have also been mobilizing to support the student survivors’ efforts as well as some actions of their own, according to a 1993 graduate at the vigil who asked not to be identified.
Jacklyn Mathew, a 2010 alumna of Stoneman Douglas, recalls returning home from work and sitting alone in her Washington, D.C., apartment on Feb. 14, unable to look away from cable news reports on the shooting at her high school despite their repetitiveness.
“I couldn’t comprehend that a place we all once called home was under attack,” Mathew said.
No one at the vigil was more visibly heartbroken, though, than Gillian Beard, a Coral Gables, Fla., resident and freshman at Florida Atlantic University who came to Washington, D.C., with her family to celebrate her 19th birthday.
A close friend of Nicholas Dworet, one of 14 students killed at Stoneman Douglas, Beard tearfully told the crowd gathered at the vigil that she would have to bury her best friend, a swimmer who had committed to attending the University of Indianapolis, the following week.
“I flew in last night, crying on the plane,” Beard said. “I’m supposed to be celebrating my birthday…and I can’t. I lost one of my best friends because of something that could’ve been stopped.”